This is a question that has troubled people for ages. If God is perfect and powerful, and if sickness is bad, why do people become sick? Whether a sickness is life threatening or just enough to slow us down, it is important to understand the reason and purpose for sickness in man. The Bible reveals that sickness is something that God allows for several different reasons.
Before explaining some of the reasons for why sickness may occur, it is very important to draw a distinction between people who leave their life up to time and chance, and those who commit their lives into the trust of God. Ecclesiastes 9:1 declares that the righteous and the wise put their lives into God’s hands, to watch over and help control the circumstances in their lives. Those who are unwilling to live in submission to God’s Will give over their lives instead to time and chance (Ecclesiastes 9:11). This is important to acknowledge when asking about why people become sick because there are certainly situations in which God is not directly involved in causing an illness. (For more information on the biblical teaching of “time and chance,” please read our free booklet, “Human Suffering—Why?… and How Much Longer?”).
In addition, an illness may not be the result of God’s intervention in a true Christian’s life, even if he or she lives in submission to God’s Will. He may choose to allow a Christian to become sick because of the corrupt environment in which he lives. Satan is the god of this world, and makes every attempt to do harm when he can. Therefore it should be no surprise that germs spread, and global pandemics cause great harm to people because physical contact is made with a pathogen. People may also be afflicted with degenerative diseases or inherited birth defects for reasons that do not involve God’s direct intervention, but are an effect of having a physical body in a corrupt world. In our free booklet, “Sickness and Healing—What the Bible Tells Us,” we write that Jesus Christ experienced illness: “We understand from the Bible that Jesus Christ never sinned. Still, we find that He knew about sickness, having experienced it as a human being. It is true, of course, that He carried our sicknesses so that we today can be healed from them, but we must still say that Christ became sick, even though He never sinned. This again shows that not every sickness is the result of individual sin.” God is not always directly involved in, nor the cause of, the sickness of a Church member.
Still, God does, in some situations, use sickness and affliction for a purpose. One of the most straight-forward reasons for sickness is as a punishment for disobedience. This reason serves common sense and explains that there is a cause to the effect of sickness. Deuteronomy 28:58-59 explains this in no uncertain terms: “’If you do not carefully observe all the words of this law that are written in this book, that you may fear this glorious and awesome name, THE LORD YOUR GOD, then the LORD will bring upon you and your descendants extraordinary plagues—great and prolonged plagues—and serious and prolonged sicknesses.’” This message was to the Israelites as they came out of Egypt, but it still applies to us today. God reserves the right to punish sin, which is lawlessness or the transgression of His Law.
In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul admonishes the Corinthians to take the Passover in a worthy manner; that is, with complete acceptance, admitting personal guilt of sin, causing the Sacrifice of Jesus Christ to be necessary, and with willingness to submit to God’s Will, living obediently. When these conditions for taking the Passover worthily are not met, sickness and even death may result. “For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body. For this reason many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep” (1 Corinthians 11:29-30). Taking the Passover is a serious matter in God’s eyes, and there are consequences of illness that may result when it is improperly observed.
In Psalm 39:8–11, David gives us insight into a reason for illness in his recognition that God uses it as a tool for correction. He writes: “Deliver me from all my transgressions; Do not make me the reproach of the foolish. I was mute, I did not open my mouth, Because it was You who did it. Remove Your plague from me; I am consumed by the blow of Your hand. When with rebukes You correct man for iniquity, You make his beauty melt away like a moth; Surely every man is vapor. Selah.” David acknowledges his sin in this passage, and understands that God uses sickness to rebuke and correct man for his sins.
The story of Job gives us another interesting example. Job was terribly afflicted with sickness as a result of Satan’s influence (Job 2:7-8). Yet, leading up to that moment God describes him as being blameless and upright, fearing God and shunning evil (Job 2:3). While it is true that all men but Jesus are guilty of sin, it is hard to conclude that Job became afflicted because God wanted to punish him. What is more evident throughout the story of Job is that he was afflicted so that he might recognize his hidden sin. As Job’s story progresses, it is revealed that Job had a need to repent of the sin of self-righteousness. This sin might not have been exposed if Job had never experienced the physical sickness and affliction that he did. In this case, God allowed Job to become sick to show him what he had to repent of. The result for Job was very fruitful in the way that his experience – going through a trial of physical affliction – caused him to learn about his latent and hidden sin. When he learned about it, he overcame it and repented (Job 42:6) and returned to a long and prosperous life (Job 42:17).
While punishment is a purpose of sickness that appeals to common sense, it is not always used for that reason.
Quoting again from our booklet, “Sickness and Healing—What the Bible Tells Us,” we write about John 9:1-3. “In this passage, Jesus and the disciples observed a man who was blind from birth. His disciples, apparently believing that his blindness had to be the result of his individual sin and the punishment for it, asked a pointed question: ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered: ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but that the works of God should be revealed in him.’ He then proceeded to heal the blind man.
“Christ made it clear that the blindness of the person was NOT the result of individual sin of either the blind person or his parents. This passage proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that teaching that every sickness is the result of individual sin of the sick person is patently wrong and unbiblical.”
In addition, this example proves that there was a different kind of purpose involved. The reason for this man’s blindness revealed the works of God! Jesus Christ was sent to the earth to preach the Gospel, and as a part of that work, many people came to believe Him because of the miracles that He performed, including healing the sick. The Bible describes this man as having blindness so that he could be healed. God’s purpose for sickness is not always for a punishment.
Another example of an affliction used by God for reasons other than punishment is that of the thorn in Paul’s side. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 12:7-8: “And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure. Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me.” Paul realized that this affliction he experienced actually helped him to remain humble. He was thankful for the weakness and infirmity that God gave him in this regard, concluding by saying: “For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10).
Empathy is another effect that may result from an illness or affliction. When we experience physical pain or an ailment, we build within ourselves a first-hand understanding of how others feel when they are sick. This aspect of love for a brother or sister in Christ through empathy is a vitally important character trait that all Christians must build. Jesus Christ was afflicted specifically for the sake of those who would follow Him, and as a result, He fully understands and sympathizes with our physical weakness (Hebrews 4:15). Isaiah 53:5 describes the deep meaning of Jesus’ affliction and the resulting empathy that He has for us, giving us a means by which we may be healed: “But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; The chastisement for our peace was upon Him, And by His stripes we are healed.” This example is ours to follow, so that when we are afflicted with an ailment, we may understand the pain of others, and support them as they have need.
Sickness that we experience is not a physically pleasant condition to handle. It is a burden for anyone directly involved. Yet, God has given us the ability to claim the Sacrifice of His Son, Jesus Christ, so that we can receive healing.
Lead Writer: Eric Rank